By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Aurelia Velez has been a vendor at La Marqueta in East Harlem for almost 40 years and remembers when the market was a bustling hub where patrons came for one-stop shopping.
"Before, we had everything from food to clothes to hardware and meat and fish. People would come down and do their shopping all in one place. We don't have that anymore," Velez said at her store, Velez Groceries.
City officials say they are trying to change that.
The city's Economic Development Corporation has invested millions of dollars to return the market to its former glory. During the 1950s, more than 500 mostly Puerto Rican vendors occupied the La Marqueta space, which runs from East 111th to East 119th streets.
Last week, HBK Incubates, a food business incubator run by Hot Bread Kitchen, opened in a $1.5 million renovated space. The city council provided the money for the project from its capital budget.
There are also five new vendors who are focusing on fresh fruit and vegetables, and plant vendor Urban Garden Center recently opened an outpost. There are now 10 vendors in the building.
But during lunch time one afternoon, most of the vendors had no customers.
"There needs to be more vendors so you get a lot of variety," said Wang Du, a manager at Berried Treasures, which normally sells fruit but recently took over another long-time vendors' smoked fish business. "At the moment it doesn't look so good but it has tremendous potential."
Kyle Sklerov of EDC said the goal was to start small by focusing on one building at 115th Street.
"This is part of our plan to reactivite the building and to bring fresh, healthy food options to the community," Sklerov said. "We are only focusing on the market building right now."
Some of the long-time vendors, like Velez, and others who asked not to be named, said they have seen other revitalization efforts over the years.
"I think its too late. They should have done something when it started falling down," Velez said.
But new and old vendors alike say they are cautiously optimistic about the changes happening. The hope is that more vendors will come when they hear about the changes. Also, some of the new businesses coming out of Hot Bread Kitchen may want to lease space in La Marqueta.
"We want to create an awareness that La Marqueta is back," said Tika Fotoglidi, owner of SpaHa Cafe El Barrio. Her new shop will focus on soup and lunch foods as well as preparing food for the cafe's other location on 116th Street. "I'm very optimistic provided we have a versatile mix of products."
At Urban Garden Center, co-owner Dimitri Gatanas said he had plans to do composting and host gardening workshops. Their indoor space will focus on fresh cut flowers while their outdoor space, to open in April, will feature indoor and outdoor plants.
"Business is not amazing yet but its getting there," said Gatanas who operates the business with his mother Aspasia.
He said his vision for La Marqueta would be a smaller version of Pike Place Market in Seattle.
"This is shaping up to be an organic market right here in Harlem," Gatanas said.
At Breezy Hill Orchard, they sell fresh fruit from their farm in Dutchess County. The shop, which opened a few weeks ago, had grown mostly via word of mouth, said manager Alexa Korngiebel.
On a recent Saturday, the store had its first long line and the first regulars are now begginning to come in the morning for cider donuts and hot cider.
"There's a lot of nostalgia about this place but not everyone knows we are here yet," said Korngiebel.
Plans are afoot to change that, including setting up a community supported agriculture project where people pay $5 to $10 per month to get a bag of fresh fruits delivered to them. Breezy Hill is also hoping to be able to accept food stamps for that program.
"This is a great opportunity for us and this community. We are going to be creative and make it work," said Korngiebel.